- Becoming WomanFrom Antonioni to Anne Carson and Cindy Sherman
In Michelangelo Antonioni’s four motion pictures that starred Monica Vitti, namely L’avventura (1960), La notte (1961), L’eclisse (1962), and Deserto rosso (1964), the director renounced the more literary and melodramatic motifs of his earlier films such as Cronaca di un amore (1950) and Il grido (1957). The earlier works generally revolve around sentimental crises that follow more conventional storylines and that fail to be immanently, organically translated into the visual grammar of the production. By contrast, the films of the tetralogy exhibit loose, elliptical structures that are distinguished by notoriously “imperceptible” endings and, for that matter, beginnings. These narratives start and end in ways that avoid the customary techniques of exposition that we have come to expect from genre movies. For example, the opening shot of La notte is a fast tracking shot of the Pirelli building in Milan. L’eclisse starts by plunging us into silence in a modern apartment in the Esposizione Universale Roma (EUR) area of Rome at the end of a fight between the protagonist, Vittoria, and a man who will subsequently disappear from the story. The same film may be said to “decreate” its characters over its last five minutes, during which the camera revisits the settings through which the two protagonists have meandered in the preceding scenes.
Antonioni’s systematic efforts to violate the rules of commercial cinematic storytelling in the tetralogy clearly welcome the risk of alienating the films’ viewers. Although it eventually won the Jury Prize in 1960, the screening of L’avventura at the Cannes Film Festival drew laughter and jeers from the [End Page 6] audience at its conclusion. Antonioni’s increasing unwillingness to grant the soundtrack its usual function makes his mature work even more disorienting and “deterritorialized.” Many commentators have noted the importance of his use of color in Deserto rosso, but we should not overlook the care that he invested in the soundtrack’s combination of electronic music with what can only be described as the artificially produced chanting of mythic sirens, a practice that resulted in one of his most effective methods of defamiliarization. For reasons that will grow clearer as we proceed, the use of Deleuzian terms such as “deterritorialization” may help us to grasp more fully what is truly extraordinary about these films, how they constitute sites of aesthetic and ethical metamorphosis. Accordingly, it is essential to recognize how Antonioni’s decreation of his characters through observation of their visual and psychological evanescence and how his deterritorialization of basic cinematic operations, which solicits our attention in phenomenological rather than melodramatic terms, work together and reinforce each other.
In what follows, I aim to reinterpret the aesthetic and ethical event of Antonioni’s groundbreaking series of films with Monica Vitti in Deleuzian terms, especially as this event relates to the contested theory of “becoming-woman” that Deleuze and Guattari explore in depth in A Thousand Plateaus.1 The category of “becoming-woman,” as the French philosophers articulate it, strikes me as useful in describing how the tetralogy’s female characters destabilize traditional certainties about the intended male gendering of spectatorship.2 In addition, I will problematize this reading by considering the importance of Antonioni’s cinema for Anne Carson in her poetry collection Decreation (2005) and for Cindy Sherman in her celebrated series of photographs Untitled Film Stills (1977–1980). Both artists engage in a creative dialogue with the Italian director’s mid-career productions as if in surprising and unexpected ways they indeed exemplify strategies of becoming-woman.
Although it may be difficult to pin down what Deleuze and Guattari mean by this idea without considering its myriad reverberations, I will try at least to offer a few initial comments. In Deleuze and Guattari’s immanent, affirmative ontology, becoming replaces the negative concept of drive (in light especially of Lacan’s declaration that all drives are, in the final instance, [End Page 7] death drives), with perhaps similar implications for the Hegelian notion of sublation.3 As the two French philosophers perceive it, becoming is a process that has no telos, and as such, matters in and of...